by Alyssa Granacki
In one of the most striking passages of the Inferno, Francesca da Rimini recounts her tragic love story to Dante. Francesca describes how she and her lover, Paolo, read the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere. Moved by their reading, the two kiss, suffering tragic consequences when Francesca’s husband discovers the affair and takes their lives. Dante is overwhelmed with pity for the lovers, and upon hearing Francesca’s final words: “A Gallehault indeed, that book and he/who wrote it, too; that day we read no more” [Galeotto fu ‘l libro e chi lo scrisse/quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante] (Inf.5.137-8), the pilgrim faints: “And I fell as a dead body falls” [e caddi come corpo morto cade] (Inf.5.142). Some commentators read the scene as a warning about misreading, or as Dante’s rejection of the courtly love tradition. Francesca offers a condemnation of the text by drawing a parallel between the book and Gallehault, the knight who hides Lancelot and Guinevere as they kiss. Francesca makes the book and its author the culprit for her sin and denounces the writings of courtly love in the process. But the canto also condemns Francesca and censures her and Paolo’s reading of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Francesca’s fixation on the book might leave the reader wondering: What book was she reading? Francesca, and Dante, probably would have been familiar with a French prose version of Lancelot du Lac. Although an Italian version of Arthurian tales did not exist, French manuscripts circulated in Italy and at least one such manuscript reveals Italian influence or localization in its language. This thirteenth-century manuscript, now housed at the Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana in Florence, contains, among other tales of the Round Table, the infamous kiss between Lancelot and Guinevere. Although the complete text is no longer visible, the red rubric describing how Guinevere kisses Lancelot is still legible: “Qant la reine Genieure baisa por la boche Lancel[ot] [et] Lanc[elot] baisa la reine el prim[er] au[co]intem[en]t d[e] lor.”
Although this specific moment doesn’t mention the presence of Gallehaut, the rubric at the top of the page does. It describes a meeting between Gallehaut, Lancelot, and Guinevere: “Quant la reine Ge[nieure] dona li buen ch[evalie]r a [com]paign[ie] a Gal[aa?d] [et] dist li q[u’i]l auoit n[om] Lance[elot] do lac q[u’]il ni sauoit so[n] no[m] [et] dona Gal[aad?] por [com]paigno[n] a lanc[elot].” The complicated relationship between the three figures is present in this manuscript, and, in fact, even highlighted by the summaries given in the red rubrics. At a size of about 8 by 12 inches (220mm x 315mm), just slightly larger than a standard sheet of paper, we might imagine how such a book could have brought Paolo and Francesca physically closer, as they leaned over the pages to read of Lancelot and Guinevere.
Another fourteenth-century manuscript, found at the Pierpont Morgan Library, shows the kiss just as Francesca describes it. On the left, we see Guinevere and Lancelot leaning in toward one another as Gallehaut shields them with his body.
On the right, the presence of the Lady Mallehaut offers further insight into the Comedy. The story of Lancelot and Guinevere reappears in Paradise 16.13-15 when Dante draws a parallel between Beatrice and the Lady Mallehaut. Beatrice smiles at Dante’s pride in his ancestor, Cacciaguida, just as Lady Mallehaut coughs when she hears the confession of love between Lancelot and Guinevere, reminding them of their fault.
Dante’s Arthurian references are not limited to the Comedy, and, in addition to manuscripts like the ones above, there is strong evidence that the tales also spread orally (See also: Otranto Mosaic).
Allaire, Gloria and F. Regina Psaki. Arthur of the Italians: The Arthurian Legend in Medieval Italian Literature and Culture. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2014.
A Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, edited by Carol Dover. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013.
Hoffman, Donald. “Lancelot in Italy.” In Companion to the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, ed. Carol Dover. Cambridge: DS Brewer, 2003.
Papio, Michael. “Lancelot.” In Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia, edited by Christopher Kleinhenz. New York: Routledge, 2004.